(Reuters) - Five former New Jersey inmates and three of their wives were charged with stealing roughly $100,000 in unemployment insurance benefits while serving time in county jails, the state prosecutor said on Tuesday.
The defendants stole amounts ranging from $12,000 to $28,000 between 2009 and 2010, certifying over the phone every other week or online each week, from jail, that they were physically able to work immediately, the New Jersey Attorney General's Office said in a statement.
The fraud unfolded around the time when the state's Unemployment Trust Fund became insolvent, the statement said.
"Unemployment insurance benefits are intended to help workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own, not to provide a free paycheck to criminals while they sit in jail after breaking our laws," Acting Attorney General John Hoffman said.
The eight defendants were charged with third-degree theft by deception and could face between three and five years in state prison and a fine of $15,000 if convicted.
The cases were referred to the prosecutor's office by the state's Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which has been cracking down on the fraud since 2011, according to the statement.
A grand jury indicted Kurt Ohlson and his wife Donna, as well as Edward Soto and his wife Jessica, on Monday. The other four - Theodore Campbell and his wife Diana, Nado Shaw, and Russell Garrett - were indicted in May.
Four of the inmates were serving time for driving while intoxicated, while one had been convicted of aggravated assault with a weapon, the statement said.
The charges were made public roughly a year after the state's comptroller published an audit which found that New Jersey spent $23 million in benefit payments - including unemployment, Medicaid coverage, and food stamp assistance - on prisoners between July 2009 and April 2011.
(Reporting by Curtis Skinner; Editing by Jim Loney)